Author Archive

#sermoneyes: the gospel of jesus’ wife

in response to those

who’ve been asking to read it, below is the transcript of the sermon that i preached last Sunday.

as always, comments welcome.


Holy Innocents, Fallowfield
23rd Sep 2012 (16th after Trinity)

– Wisdom of Solomon 1:16-2:1, 12-22
– James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
– Mark 9:30-37

I wouldn’t want to suggest that the average week in the life of a biblical scholar is dull, but this past week certainly couldn’t be described that way. The standard mid-September routine – which usually consists of trying to forget all the things people said at the summer conferences that really annoyed you, trying to remember where you put that post-it note that you wrote yourself in July listing all the things that need to be done before the start of the new year and (unless your lucky enough to be on research leave) running round trying to make sure your students have all the course materials they need – was, this time round, bluntly and fascinatingly interrupted.

On Tuesday, as I’m sure many of you saw, the story broke that Karen King, a Professor of Early Christianity at Harvard Divinity School, had published a fragment of papyrus that appears to be part of an unknown text that has somewhat playfully been dubbed The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife. The fragment, which is around the size of a business card and thought by those who have published it to date from around the fourth century CE (c.275-425), has text written on both sides in Coptic, the language used in Egypt between the 2nd and 17th centuries CE. Among the eight lines of text the fragment contains, appear phrases that translate as something like: “Jesus said to them, “my wife”, followed on the next line by “she will be able to be my disciple”.

Somewhat tragically, this is exactly the kind of thing that puts a skip in the steps of biblical scholars and, more to the point, causes them to drop everything and take to emailing all their friends, composing blog posts and seeing if they can’t get themselves a slot as an ‘expert’ commentator somewhere. And then, as if scholars aren’t special and excitable enough, there is the media. The headline of the first article on the subject, published in the Boston Globe, read ‘Harvard Professor identifies scrap of papyrus suggesting some early Christians believed Jesus was married’. It wasn’t long, however, until outlets that prefer to run with shorter, less nuanced headlines containing fewer qualifications, got hold of the story and therefore sentiments more like “Academic claims Jesus had a wife” and “New Gospel proves Jesus was married” soon followed.

Aside from the somewhat tongue-in-cheek name she has given to the text, to her credit, King has courted very little of the tabloid sensationalism, having been very clear from the outset that she was not claiming that the fragment suggested anything about whether Jesus had actually been married, but only that, if genuine, it was evidence that a certain early Christian community understood him as having been. Now, as I’m sure many of you know, the difference between these two positions is huge, and is crucial to understanding both the history of early Christianity and the New Testament texts.

I remember as an undergraduate being involved in an outreach event whose goal was to present everyone on campus with a copy of Mark’s Gospel. It was a nationally coordinated mission, and the texts had been produced in their thousands, and looked like a 40-year-old-Christian’s perception of what the average 18 year old thinks is stylish, with ‘The Gospel of Mark’, having been replaced with the far more informative title ‘Identity’. I remember flicking open the embossed, silver cover and reading, on the first page, that the booklet contained “an eye-witness account of the life of Jesus”.

Hmm. As it turned out, the more questions I asked of those who were in charge of the campaign, the clearer it became that this idea of an eye-witness account was central to the mission’s message. I pointed out several times to various people that as far as scholars are concerned the Gospel of Mark is very unlikely to be either the work of a disciple, or based, as one tradition holds, on the preaching of Peter, and that even if it had been, the notion of an eye-witness account is a misleading description of what a Gospel is. None of that, however, seemed to sway anyone’s commitment to the agreed line.

Despite the scholarly consensus and the fact that the contents of the synoptic Gospels (that is Matthew, Mark and Luke) are very difficult to reconcile, many Christians seem to believe that rather than complex, theologically motivated pieces of literature dating from at least a generation after the life of Jesus, the Gospels are basically journalistic accounts which accurately record historical facts. What is more, despite that lovely note at the end of John’s Gospel that aptly demonstrates that by the early 2nd Century it was well acknowledged that only a small proportion of the events of Jesus’ life had ever been written about, there are some for whom if it’s not in the book, it couldn’t possibly have happened. Jesus, for these people, is an entirely known commodity, and anything that doesn’t fit their image is basis for a scandal.

And so, back to the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife. What perhaps amused me more than the over-excited scholars or ludicrous headlines, were the group emails, links to blog posts and Facebook group invitations that I started receiving from various Christian organisations or activists, the majority of which seemed concerned with making sure I knew how to combat the utterly false claim that Jesus had been married. Whereas for the skittish scholars this was (primarily) a matter of intellectual rigor – of making sure people had correctly understood the implications of the finding and had not overstepped the evidence, for these groups it seemed more like a matter of quashing heresy, or even blasphemy. The tone of the many of messages painted the whole thing as a bit like an attack, in the face of which ‘we’ all simply needed to remember our training.

One seminarian from Kentucky pointed out in an interview that the Coptic word hime, which King translated, following convention, as ‘wife’, might simply mean ‘a woman that cooks and cleans for a man’ and might not connote anything sexual at all. However, as Simon Jenkins wryly pointed out this week in his otherwise relatively dull Guardian article, that statement probably tells us more about the Kentuckian seminarian than it does about Jesus.

The assumption, in many of the responses that I read was that ‘we’, as Christians, would be horrified by the idea that people might suddenly be incorrectly believing that it had been proven that Jesus had a wife. Now, while I am slightly amused that some people have managed to reach that conclusion on the basis of Prof. King’s research, what I’m definitely not is horrified. After all, Jesus may well have been married. In fact, as has been pointed out many times, it would have been very unusual for someone of his age, cultural heritage, religious affiliations and social status not to have been.

Here, then, is the crux – if we wish to believe and argue that Jesus did not have a wife, we must bear in mind that we do so not from evidence, but from a lack thereof. There is nothing in any of the accounts that we have that either clearly states or clearly denies that before, during or after his ministry Jesus got married. And the same could be said for all kinds of other aspects of his experience. Of course, it’s very easy to fill in the gaps in the texts with our own ideas or those we have inherited, and that’s not necessary wrong – after all, tradition and experience are perfectly valid sources for theological enterprise. However, if the notion of an historical Jesus is to be of any use to us, then we need to remember which ideas are based on what. If we are wise, I suggest, we should not aggressively defend the historical truth of a concept of Jesus that has been constructed at least partly in a-historical terms.

The early Christian communities, it seems, were well aware of this danger of co-opting a figure like Jesus for this or that theological agenda. We heard in last week’s and today’s gospels of how, when Jesus told the disciples that the Son of Man must suffer, be rejected, die and be raised, they were confused, or offended – Peter even taking Jesus aside and attempting to correct him. It seems that the disciples thought they knew well what they messiah would and wouldn’t do, and if they were going to follow Jesus, they needed him to conform to their preconceptions. When Jesus rejected Peter’s correction and continued talking about death and resurrection, it seems that the group simply could not understand what he meant, and were afraid to ask. Maybe, like those that the writer of the Wisdom of Solomon calls ‘ungodly’ in today’s first lesson, they assumed that a truly righteous person would be spared the indignity of rejection, torture and death? Perhaps they thought dying was too weak, too human a fate for God’s chosen one?

And yet, as we know, the key theological innovation of the faith that developed in the wake of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection was the idea that God could, and did, become truly human. We know that in the early centuries that idea proved very difficult to come to terms with, but I think it still has the power to shock and disturb people, even those of us who confess it aloud every week.

Of course, those early gentiles who were attempting to harmonise the fledgling Christian faith with the fundamental principles of classical Greek theology – i.e. that God was eternal, ever-present, all-knowing, all-powerful and utterly unchangeable, in other words thoroughly incapable of becoming human – well, let’s just say that they especially struggled. But they were not the only ones, and that was not the only sticky issue. As it became clear that the end of the world, as preached by Jesus’ followers and mentioned in several New Testament texts, was not as imminent as had first been thought, difficult decisions had to be made about how Christian communities should live: who could join? Who should lead the communities? What was the status of women? Should Christians get married? Where did sex fit in? What about children?

Perhaps this new fragment is genuine, perhaps it will turn out not to be – there are already articles circulating that argue, on the basis of a seeming reliance on a particular version of the Gospel of Thomas, that it is probably a modern hoax. In a sense, however, it really doesn’t matter. Either way, I think we do well to note and learn from other people’s and our own reactions to the mere possibility that it might be an authentic indication of what a certain early community thought about Jesus. How much variation in terms of belief about Jesus are we willing to acknowledge in the early Church? Indeed, how human are we prepared for Jesus to have been? How many of the gaps in the Gospel texts do we need to be filled in with inferences, suppositions or possibly-outmoded traditions?

The essence of Prof. King’s argument is that, if genuine, this fragment, and the longer text to which it once belonged, are just a small part of a section of early Christian history that is often ignored, or even wilfully obscured – a history that witnesses to far more diversity in terms of belief and practice than many modern Christians are comfortable with, but also a history that demonstrates how the early communities grappled with many of the issues with which we’re still struggling.

Perhaps Jesus had a wife, perhaps he did not, but I think attending to whether or not we’re open to the idea of him having shared that particular human experience can highlight important things about how we are reading, interpreting and engaging the scriptures, the traditions of the Church and our individual and collective experience.


#ranthill: gone but not forgotten

i’m aware that

this story has already been reported in several places, but i feel like i should swell those ranks – partly because there might be some readers who missed it, and partly in order to record it in the RQT annuls so i never forget that it happened.

several of you will have noticed that on Friday an Olympiad started, and, as is traditional, the ceremonial opening of the games was instantiated in an opening ceremony. that ceremony was orchestrated by film director Danny Boyle (Sunshine, Shallow Grave, 28 Days Later) and took the form of a retelling of modern British history themed around the poem ‘And did those feet in ancient time’ by William Blake.

i, along with what seems to me from the response i’ve seen like the majority of people, very much enjoyed both Boyle’s take on Blake and history and the spectacle by which it was communicated. it was no surprise, however, given his well publicised decision to make the NHS central to his (nuanced, and, in places, dark) celebration of modern Britain, that the right-wing press would be displeased by the ceremony – the exact nature of the displeasure expressed in The Daily Mail, however, exceeded my expectations.

while predictably anti-NHS rhetoric set the context for a piece written for the Mail Online by regular contributor Rick Dewsbury, that proved merely the oversized side-salad to a dish of cold, seasoned racism. it’s not at all out of character for the Mail to crowbar in a few comments about ‘fawning’ race-equality the ‘creeping’ multi-cultural agenda and/or ‘worrying’ immigration, or even to use a ‘bait-and-switch’ approach, but this, well this was something else.

the relevant section of the article read:

And how long did this shameful propaganda last for? A whole 15 minutes at the top of proceedings before viewers dozed off to the procession of banana republics and far-flung destinations nobody has ever heard of or even cares for.

That such a politically divisive subject was included at all is utterly shocking. Not least because it glossed over the cracks in a system that is creaking at its seams – crying out for urgent reform …

The NHS segment came after a mildly moving rendition of Jerusalem (though this will move any patriot) and a play depicting the industrial revolution tearing up Blake’s ‘green and pleasant land’ …

But it was the absurdly unrealistic scene – and indeed one that would spring from the kind of nonsensical targets and equality quotas we see in the NHS – showing a mixed-race middle-class family in a detached new-build suburban home, which was most symptomatic of the politically correct agenda in modern Britain.

This was supposed to be a representation of modern life in England but it is likely to be a challenge for the organisers to find an educated white middle-aged mother and black father living together with a happy family in such a set-up.

Almost, if not every, shot in the next sequence included an ethnic minority performer. The BBC presenter Hazel Irvine gushed about the importance of grime music (a form of awful electronic music popular among black youths) to east London.

This multicultural equality agenda was so staged it was painful to watch.”

i’m not going to deign this incongruent, ill-founded and hateful muck with analysis or further comment, but i hope the fact that such a sentiment was ever published on the site of a major newspaper is as shocking to you as it is to me.

like several others who read this article on Saturday morning, i was initially stunned, then, having thought about it for a few minutes, lodged a complaint on the PPC website. then, after having made the complaint, i went back to the site to find that the article had been redacted (without acknowledgement). and the most hateful paragraph now read:

This was supposed to be a representation of modern life in England but such set-ups are simply not the ‘norm’ in any part of the country. So why was it portrayed like this and given such prominence? If it was intended to be something that we can celebrate, that two people with different colour skin and different cultural heritages can live harmoniously together, then it deserves praise. But what will be disturbing to many people is top-down political manipulation – whether consciously or unthinkingly – at a major sporting event.

who knows whether Dewsbury was made to write this u-turn himself, but it’s interesting to know that someone in authority decided that what was originally there was too much, even for the Mail.

… then … shortly after the redaction was made, the post was pulled altogether and has not resurfaced since.

two girls, one cut

a few months

ago, three year old Hartford resident Eva Cohen (→) allowed her five year old sister, Sadie Cohen, to cut her hair (hwayer). a few weeks later, their father Jeff Cohen, a reporter for Connecticut public radio station WNPR, decided to interview the girls about the experience and how they see it with the help of hindsight.

that interview is embedded below.

i can’t quite express how much i love this.

#faithseeking: petertide

and so

we’ve arrived at Petertide, one of the two times of the year that the church reserves for ordaining those who have been prepared for diaconal and priestly ministry. i’m not sure how many of those from the South West that i have taught are due to be ordained this weekend, although as far as i can tell there are no ordinations happening in Exeter, only Truro. my Manchester people all have at least another year of training.

the PD and i will be at St Paul’s Cathedral today to see our friend James become deacon and then Peterborough Cathedral tomorrow to witness our friend Dom doing the same. for me it’s a time of year that brings my struggles with the C of E into sharp focus: on the one hand, it’s a great festival, the culmination and celebration of the obedience, self-sacrifice and hard work that training for ministry requires. However, on the other, it means another cycle of talented, enthusiastic and inspired disciples of Christ and servants of his Church committing themselves to a structure of authority that i continue to find troubling.

this weekend, ordinands in cathedrals up and down the country will solemnly pledge allegiance to the crown and obedience to their bishop, and will confirm their commitment to live ‘within the discipline’ of Issues in Human Sexuality (the Church’s hugely flawed and woefully out of date policy document on sexuality). although the agreement to ‘live within the discipline’ of Issues… is less profound than the other promises to defer to ecclesiastical and royal authority (at least for straight people), it’s actually the one that bothers me the most.

i think it’s the insidious nature of the assent. while i know many priests and deacons who profoundly disagree with Issues…, all of them have made this formal gesture of conformity to its pattern. the way it’s done seems to basically reflect the assumption that if you’re normal (primarily read ‘straight’) then accepting to live out your sexuality in the way the document describes will not be an ‘issue’ for you, and therefore that only those for whom this norm does not compute will encounter a stumbling block. the problem is that in and behind the document all kinds of problematic theological ideas and assumptions lurk, many of which were reaffirmed in the recent and equally risible response to the government consultation on same-sex marriage.

it seems to me that the assent to Issues… goes significantly beyond an agreement not to do certain things, and therefore, i’m always left wondering how effectively priests and deacons can really challenge the Church from the inside to do the much needed work of re-thinking its position on sex, sexuality and gender  if in order to get into the club they have first to agree to be disciplined by the current and shambolic accepted ‘wisdom’. it also seems to me that this is one area in which, given the status quo the laity must minister to and on behalf of the clergy – to call the Church out from under the blanket of shadowy assumptions and theological contortions that make up its ‘stance’ on these issues and into a proper, honest, open and most importantly shared conversation.

anyway, here ends the gloom.

by way of a semi-antidote (santidote) here’s a poem that i like (except for the line about medication):


Priestly Duties: A Poem by Stewart Henderson

What should a priest be?
All things to all
male, female and genderless

What should a priest be?
Reverent and relaxed
vibrant in youth
assured through the middle years
divine sage when ageing

What should a priest be?
Accessible and incorruptible
abstemious, yet full of celebration
informed but not threateningly so
and far above the passing soufflé of fashion

What should a priest be?
An authority on singleness
Solomon-like on the labyrinth of human sexuality
excellent with young marrieds, old marrieds,
were marrieds, never marrieds, shouldn’t have marrieds,
those who live together, those who live apart,
and those who don’t live anywhere
respectfully mindful of senior citizens and war veterans
familiar with the ravages of arthritis,
osteoporrosis, post natal depression, anorexia,
whooping cough and nits.

What should a priest be?
All round family person,
Counsellor, but not officially because of recent changes in legislation,
teacher, expositor, confessor, entertainer, juggler,
good with children, and possibly sea lions,
empathetic towards pressure groups.

What should a priest be?
On nodding terms with Freud, Jung, St John of The Cross,
The Scott Report, The Rave Culture, The Internet,
The Lottery, BSE and Anthea Turner,
pre modern, fairly modern, postmodern,
and ideally secondary modern
if called to the inner city.

What should a priest be?
Charismatic, if needs must, but quietly so,
evangelical, and thoroughly
meditative, mystical but not New Age
liberal and so open to other voices
traditionalist, reformer and revolutionary
and hopefully not on medication
unless for an old sporting injury.

Note to congregations: If your priest actually fulfils
all of the above, and then enters the pulpit one Sunday
morning wearing nothing but a shower cap, a fez, and declares
“I’m the King and Queen of Venus, and we shall now sing
the next hymn in Latvian, take your partners, please”. –
let it pass – like you and I they too sew
the thin thread of humanity.
Remember Jesus in the Garden
– beside himself.

What does a priest do?
Mostly stays awake at Deanery synods
tries not to annoy the Bishop too much
visits hospices, administers comfort
conducts weddings, christenings,
not necessarily in that order,
takes funerals
consecrates the elderly to the grave
buries children, and babies
feels completely helpless beside
the swaying family of a suicide,
sometimes is murdered at night, alone.

What does a priest do?
Tries to colour in God
uses words to explain miracles
which is like teaching a centipede to sing
but even more difficult.

What does a priest do?
Answers the phone
when sometimes they’d rather not,
occasionally errs and strays into tabloid titillation
prays for Her Majesty’s Government

What does a priest do?
Tends the flock through time, oil and incense
would secretly like each PCC
to commence with a mud pie making contest
sometimes falls asleep when praying
yearns like us for heart rushing deliverance

What does a priest do?
Has rows with their family
wants to inhale Heaven
stares at bluebells
attempts to convey the mad love of God
would like to ice skate with crocodiles,
and hear the roses when they pray

How should a priest live?
How should we live?
As priests, transformed by the Priest
that death prised open
so that he could be our priest
martyred, diaphanous and matchless priest
What should a priest be?
What should a priest do?
How should a priest live?

#RIP: an anniversary worth marking


Tiananmen Square, Beijing – 4th June 1989

#ranthill: gay marriage

there is (probably too) much i could say about the arguments currently being peddled by the conservative lobby of the CofE, but this cartoon speaks to many of them quite nicely:

#gastrognome: indulge gins

we’ve all been away a while

but it’s an especially long while since we had any advice from our demi-resident food critic and general gourmet the #gastrognome.

what better way then, we thought, to both reinvigorate ourselves and welcome the small amount of fine weather that we are currently subject to, than by asking for his thoughts on and tips for the perfect gin and tonic?

be warned, however, he has only recently returned from leading overpriced steak tasting courses in St John’s Wood, Wells, Tunbridge Wells, Primrose Hill, the non-carnivaley bits of Notting Hill, and West Didsbury, and he’s not quite gone back to normal-speak.

anyway, that not withstanding – enjoy. cheers! *chink* (with eye contact)


o Route One
Frankly shovel crushed or better-still shaved ice into a crystal tumbler. Introduce an indifferent squeeze of a lemon and four long shards of the former’s peel. Charm the citrused ice with a measure and a drip of G’Vine Nouaison, further grant Fever-Tree Indian tonic water and shallow-whirl three times. Announce it as ‘crafted’.
o Route Two
Neither under nor overwhelm the bottom of a china teacup which has been grafted onto the stem of a wine glass with small-cubed ice. Further ingratiate yourself to it with several short cucumber shards and two mill-revolutions of black pepper. Inquire of the proposed enjoyant whether or not (s)he plans to subsequently return to work, and fortify the cup with a volume of Hendricks that stands proportionate to their reply. Finally, congratulate your creation with three-to-four times as much F-T as you granted it gin, stir once and serve with a sprigette of rosemary and modest assurance.
o Route Three
Brandishing a bevelled highball, establish it with coarse cubes of fresh-ginger-infused ice. Rebuff the ice with a nip of orange zest then further challenge it with two licks of No.2 Anchor Distilling Company’s “Genevieve” genever. Indubitably and somewhat dispassionately finish it with F-T. Sharply trouble the liquids with a glass rod or vintage, bakelite chopstick and immediately send.
[In the event that your local supplier is temporarily unable to provide these gins the following are acceptable as substitutes:
– Cadenhead’s Old Raj for G’Vine Nouaison
– Leopold Bros. American Small-Batch for Genevieve
– nothing for Hendricks (if they don’t have it, burn the place down)